A Kind of Alchemy: The Art of Eddie Campbell

Posted by on June 21st, 2010 at 3:02 AM


From How to Be an Artist, ©2001 Eddie Campbell.


During the mid-to-late 1980s, Campbell’s work at last escaped the photocopier for offset printing. The King Canute Crowd was serialized in a three-volume set of books from Escape starting in 1984, under the name Alec, around the same time that his comic strip began appearing in the music magazine Sounds. (Campbell would later draw a series of comic strips in collaboration with Glenn Dakin for rival publication Melody Maker, which would in turn later be reprinted in the shortlived Fantagraphics magazine, Honk!) Meanwhile, Campbell conspired with Dakin and Elliott to start a “new wave” line of comics with the publisher Harrier, which (among other things) resulted in several issues of Deadface, starring Campbell’s “superhero,” the rapidly aging Greek god of wine, Bacchus.

By the time Harrier’s line folded, Campbell had emigrated to Australia, the birthplace of his wife, Anne, and started raising a family. As the British minicomics scene began to retreat, Alec and Bacchus stories began popping up in a variety of anthologies and publications around the globe. Many of those Alec stories would later turn up in the book Three Piece Suit, including the short story that Campbell himself considers his finest work, “Graffiti Kitchen,” an exploration of a romantic triangle gone deliciously awry. It is here that the Alec stories reach their first plateau, in terms of storytelling sophistication and compositional daring, yet despite this confident and complex formalism, it’s also the most compulsively readable of Campbell’s longer works. By this point, the techniques and strategies pioneered in The King Canute Crowd have become even more polished, and while the sexual daring on display in this story never becomes prurient or exploitive, it nonetheless makes “Graffiti Kitchen” an easy sell to readers. I’m not quite convinced that it’s the artist’s best work — I’m a King Canute partisan, myself — but it’s indisputably a strong one.

With the exception of How to Be an Artist, Campbell’s other autobiographical works from the 1990s and early oughts center primarily around his life as a husband and father. It’s around this point that one would expect the artist to begin a slow, graceful decline from artistic derring-do to amiable domestic minutiae, and to a certain extent, this is exactly what happened. Over the decade, Campbell filled a book and a half with tales of adorable children and a longsuffering wife, anchored around the whimsical, irrascable patriarch as he wryly observes the world around him, punctuated only by inside-baseball anecdotes involving the comics industry and the folks who inhabit it. By After the Snooter, Campbell finally abandoned the pseudonym and began documenting the people around him by their real names. As the 20th century closed out, one could almost see Campbell settling into life as a artier, more sophisticated Garrison Keilor.

I suppose that may sound harsh, almost certainly harsher than I mean to sound. Would it help if I noted that I like Garrison Keilor? There are any number of delights to be found in what I call Campbell’s “domestic period.” His writing remained breezy and conversational, the illustration continued to refine and mature, and there’s no one in comics who can make the everyday world seem as engaging as Eddie Campbell — in many ways, he’s the perfect antidote to the relentless pessimism of fellow autobio pioneer Harvey Pekar. I don’t recall a single short story by Campbell that didn’t leave me feeling pleasantly fulfilled after reading it, like a long-anticipated letter from a loquacious old friend. They’re eminently readable, even eminently re-readable; I seem to dig them out every couple of years or so, and the pleasure I gain from the experience has yet to diminish to any noticeable degree.

There’s one work from Campbell’s 1990s solo efforts that resists this trend… sort of. At its best, How to Be an Artist is a fascinating, first-person account of the British alt-comics scene, and how it bled into and influenced its American equivalent. There’s a delightful lack of objectivity on display in this book: Cartoonists float in and out of the account not according to their actions or importance in the greater scheme of things, but according to when they faded in and out of Campbell’s own life. Because of this, How to Be an Artist doesn’t really work as anything resembling definitive history, but as an anecdotal account, it’s priceless. Still, it’s hard to call How to Be an Artist the “third Alec book,” if for no other reason than the considerable difference in tone. While there are moments of the artist’s trademarked anecdotal whimsy present, so much effort is spent on a straightforward, linear depiction of the events whirling around Campbell that Alec-the-Observer seems to get pushed behind the curtain, relegated to instead serving as Alec-the-Narrator despite his regular appearance on the page.

Still, How to Be An Artist is the exception to what is otherwise a rich continuum of connected works, and if the later books don’t quite measure up to the audacity and brilliance of what came before, this isn’t to say that they aren’t without their own considerable charms. Having hit some fairly astonishing heights of literary greatness so early in his career, Campbell found himself blessed with the ability to make autobiography fascinating even when one suspected him of driving on cruise control. His self-published Bacchus magazine, begun in 1995 and lasting for a solid six years and 60 regularly published issues, brought all of his Bacchus and most of his Alec stories back into serialized print before shuffling them off to collected softcover form, and offered many of his other, rarer stories besides, while the letters pages seemed to complete the “letter from a loquacious old friend” atmosphere and even seal it in bronze. Towards the turn of the 21st century, it almost seemed as if Campbell were already preparing his rocking chair, ready to settle into a well-earned stint as an aging elder statesman of comics: his mountains all climbed, his vistas all mapped, his souvenirs and awards encased neatly in glass where they belonged.

Had he not fallen into collaboration with Alan Moore, it’s entirely possible to imagine Campbell never getting over his own contentment, let alone the dark moment of artistic doubt he would experience in just a few short years. Of course, it’s also possible that without Alan Moore and From Hell, he’d have never hit that moment of doubt in the first place.


From Campbell’s collaboration with writer Alan Moore, From Hell, ©1989, 1999 Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.


From Hell was not by any means Campbell’s first collaboration, nor was it his first time working strictly as an illustrator of another person’s story, but it was, and remains, the most complex and daunting project Campbell has ever attempted. First proposed by Moore as a serialization of short episodes for the Steve Bissette-edited horror anthology Taboo, From Hell went on to outlive three publishers and ultimately gave Eddie Campbell a higher profile as an artist than he had ever previously achieved on his own. I suppose this can partly be explained away as a reflection of Alan Moore’s own celebrity status, combined with the hype from the resulting movie, but this is an incomplete picture; it’s difficult to imagine From Hell capturing its current honored place in the pantheon of great graphic novels without itself being a great graphic novel, regardless of the extenuating circumstances surrounding it, and it’s hard to imagine From Hell being as good a book with anyone other than Campbell providing the art.

Campbell turned out to be the perfect choice as illustrator, if not the only proper choice. Clocking in at over 500 pages, From Hell is the story of the infamous Jack the Ripper murders that simultaneously repulsed and captivated the world at the dawn of the 20th century, but it’s also an examination of the mores and assumptions of Victorian London, as well as a heartfelt indictment of the ruling elites charged with maintenance of the empire that radiated outward around the world from its streets. On its own, Campbell’s art has an open, casual air perfect for anecdotal autobiography, but From Hell challenged Campbell to produce a work that exhibited the opposite atmosphere: a crowded, polluted city that drove its inhabitants to find the prospect of murder by an elemental force of evil to be far more noble and romantic than the lives they found themselves leading. Aided by a small circle of assistants, Campbell rose brilliantly to the challenge. The crosshatching and pools of spotted blacks that surround From Hell‘s cast seem simultaneously sketchy and oppressively meticulous, as though some infernal god had carefully constructed the grayest, most all-encompassing Inferno ever built to house the sinners of the world out of burlap, rusting iron and old, wet planks of wood. It’s impossible to imagine anyone living a fulfilling life in such a landscape; indeed, simply maintaining one’s own dignity looks like a difficult stretch under such circumstances. Campbell and Company provide the perfect backdrop against which to stage a blood-stained revolution of consciousness, populated with people who look as though they’d resigned themselves to their fates long before the curtain ever rose over the story. From Hell is Eddie Campbell’s greatest achievement as an illustrator.

Following the conclusion of From Hell, Moore and Campbell moved on to a collaboration of a very different sort, when Campbell volunteered to adapt two examples of Moore’s performance poetry into comics form, resulting in 1999’s The Birth Caul and 2001’s Snakes and Ladders. According to Campbell, Moore was suspicious of the notion that these two performances could be turned into comics at all, but our hero was undeterred, and the results can only be described as impressive displays of graphic derring-do. If From Hell was a radical departure for Campbell, these two works are on another, more experimental level altogether.

Of the two, The Birth Caul is the more conventional comic, but only just. Campbell opens the piece with Moore holding his dying mother in his arms, before shifting the scene to the author decked out in shamanic face paint as he sits behind a table, speaking to the audience. Among the theatergoers is a young man who turns out to be a younger Alan Moore himself — if you ever wondered what the Magus looks like sans the beard, here you go — and from here, The Birth Caul takes us on a reverse journey, following this younger Moore back past early adulthood, to his school days, early childhood, infancy and finally to the womb itself. The Birth Caul essentially follows human life backward to one point where we cease to exist in order to aid us in contemplating extinction at the other end: “The birth caul is a natal shroud,” Moore tells us at one point. From this hook, Campbell hangs his presentation, and the results, while graphically adventurous, nonetheless follow fairly clear comic-book strategies in conveying Moore’s prose to the reader in safely comprehensible form.


From Snake and Ladders, ©2001 Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell.


Snakes and Ladders takes narrative to another level altogether. Whereas the previous work followed a relatively linear storytelling structure — albeit in reverse — Snakes is an epic symposium on the quest for “real magic,” as sought by a wide variety of historical personages, and leaps back and forth from figure to figure as the need arises. The result is a rich mélange of quantum mechanics, metaphorical questing and artistic inspiration, covering everything from the posthumous trial of Oliver Cromwell to the death of Pre-Raphaelite muse Lizzie Siddall to writer Arthur Machen’s experiences in turn-of-the-century Baghdad to the confessions of Moore’s own creation, John Constantine. Making full use of the computer’s ability to cut and paste images, Campbell takes the opposite tack of his previous adaptation, using the images not to streamline and clarify the prose it illustrates but, rather, to add layer after layer of imagery and context in-between its statements and ideas. Drawings and photography meld into a heady collage of overlapping historical footnotes and famous paintings; at one point, Burne-Jones’ elegant female subjects are sampled into an image that suggests Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, punctuated by Little Nemo rising from a dream. Moore’s actual performance, while noted, is pushed into the background to better accommodate the imagery of his poem: A handbill promoting the show gets more space on the page than does its subject. Snakes and Ladders is dense, intricate, even alchemical: It’s an impressive exercise.

Campbell’s latest work, The Fate of the Artist, is a logical step forward from this experience. “In Eddie Campbell’s latest graphic novel,” the dust jacket informs us, “the artist will conduct an investigation into his own disappearance,” yet what we get isn’t so much an investigation as the artful placement of oblique clues and hints. Using a moment of artistic doubt suffered by Campbell as a springboard, Fate weaves the lives of forgotten artists and artisans, autobiographical anecdotes in which the author is portrayed by an actor, faux comic strips, fumetti, and concludes with a faithfully adapted O. Henry short story starring Campbell himself. The work is as collage-like as was Snakes and Ladders, but here the juxtapositions are between scenes rather than images. None of the individual parts ever fully connect to their surroundings; instead, each segment slyly comments on the implied message of others, building thematic inferences rather than a narrative storyline. Graphically, The Fate of the Artist is more subdued than Snakes and Ladders, yet its conceptual underpinnings are more daring than anything its creator has ever before attempted.

Readers long accustomed to his more traditional work might be forgiven for thinking that Campbell has slipped them a Mickey with his latest work, but I would advise them not to let it put them off: In its own way, The Fate of the Artist is a continuation of the quest for comics-as-literature that has absorbed his attention since before The King Canute Crowd. As he enters his fourth decade in the creation of graphic novels, Eddie Campbell, newly invigorated by collaboration and spurred onward by life’s changes and challenges, continues to experiment in the transmutation of words-and-pictures into enduring art. One would expect nothing less from a master alchemist.


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